April 10 - June 19, 2021
From the gallery:
“Lora Reynolds is pleased to announce Six Stories, a project room exhibition of drawings by Ben Durham—the artist’s second solo show at the gallery.
Ben Durham makes drawings of people he grew up with. He finds the source images for his works by looking for familiar faces and names in online databases of mugshots from the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Rather than rendering his subjects by classical means (crosshatching or the like) Durham writes each of his subjects’ stories, layering text in varying weights and densities until it somehow resolves into a photorealistic likeness. He calls these drawings Text Portraits.
The six new pieces are intimately scaled. Some are less dense, even ghostly, because rather than layering text on top of itself to create depth and form (and obscuring the written details of each person’s narrative), Durham creates these muted drawings line by legible line—like personal letters written directly to the viewer. In some cases, he embeds sections of chain-link fencing in his thick handmade paper to create a raised grid suggestive of scarred flesh. These new portraits reveal the vital role of writing in Durham’s work, giving space to the stories that have mostly been layered to the point of illegibility in the Text Portraits he has made for the last 18 years. In Six Stories, narrative and image coalesce in new ways.
Until now, Durham has refused to discuss the crimes his subjects allegedly committed, wanting instead to create a space of suspended judgment for viewers looking into the faces he draws. He aims to see each arrest as the result of an incomprehensibly complex web of choices and coincidences and systemic injustices, and to avoid reducing his childhood friends and classmates into caricatures of criminals. Durham’s work grasps for empathy and consideration, for slowing down—a tall order in a world defined by polarized opinions, snap judgments, five-second YouTube advertisements, six-inch iPhone screens, and Twitter’s 280 character limit. The artist continually returns to an observation by Jacques Ranciere: “We must be sensitized to the capacity for each name to have a story.” Neat resolutions are not the goal of sustained engagement with Durham’s drawings. Rather, he hopes the longer we look, the less anonymous his subjects will become, and the more deeply we might feel the complexity of each of their stories.
Amid the opioid epidemic, Durham has found a way to talk more specifically about how our society criminalizes addiction, the far-reaching repercussions of pharmaceutical profiteering, and the resulting decimation of his own hometown community—a phenomenon familiar to much of Middle America. Many of the people in these drawings built themselves families and careers before falling prey to a broken system of pain management after accidents and injuries. They were all recently arrested on charges related to medically prescribed opioids, many finding themselves caught in the cogs of the justice system for the first time in their 30s. These overlapping cycles of despair can be exceedingly difficult to escape—aside from navigating drug dependence and rehab, criminal records make finding jobs and housing more challenging, court dates in the middle of the workday cannot be missed, and court fees quickly add up—especially for those living in impoverished communities.
The criminal justice system in this country is more punitive and exploitative than it is rehabilitative. To say nothing of for-profit prisons or tough-on-crime political rhetoric, the websites that collect and disseminate arrest records and mugshots often dominate search results for the names of those with criminal records. These sites accept payments to scrub identifying information from their databases, but the proliferation of this business model makes it nearly impossible to entirely remove evidence of one’s darkest days from the internet.
These are the very sites, of course, where Durham finds the source material for his drawings. When asked directly whether he thinks his work is able to transcend its exploitative origins, he explains that if his portraits fail to implicate himself in this deeply flawed and unjust system—a system from which none of us can extricate ourselves—he would have no interest in making them. Durham aims to make work that challenges our judgments, reflects the messiness of reality, and encourages us to see ourselves in others. How might we be judged if the world could see us at our worst hour?—and who among us deserves such a fate?
Ben Durham, born in 1982 in Kentucky, lives and works in Virginia. He has exhibited at the 21c Museum (Louisville), FLAG Art Foundation (New York), KMAC Museum (Louisville), and National Portrait Gallery (Washington DC). His work is included in the collections of the 21c Museum, FLAG Art Foundation, Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond), and Whitney Museum of American Art (New York).”
On View: April 10, 2021 | 1–5 pm
360 Nueces Street, Suite C
Austin, 78701 TX
(512) 215-4965Get directions